“For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would inherit the world was not through the law, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. If those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made empty and the promise is canceled. For the law produces wrath. And where there is no law, there is no transgression. This is why the promise is by faith, so that it may be according to grace, to guarantee it to all the descendants — not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of Abraham’s faith. He is the father of us all in God’s sight. As it is written: I have made you the father of many nations. He believed in God, who gives life to the dead and calls things into existence that do not exist. He believed, hoping against hope, so that he became the father of many nations according to what had been spoken: So will your descendants be.” (Romans 4:13-18 HCSB)
Law language (you shall) demands our obedience, but promise language (I will) demands our faith.
Have you ever made a promise that you simply couldn’t keep? I’m certain the each of you have probably made promises you were unable to keep, myself included. The real question is, “Did you know when you made the promise that it would be impossible to keep, or did you realize that fact later or, perhaps, even in the midst of trying to keep it?” There’s a big difference between making a promise with no intention of keeping it or knowing it would be impossible to keep and making one you intend to keep but find yourself unable to do so. I would even caution young parents to be very careful making flippant promises to your children. They are quite capable of remembering the promises you made and your consistent failure (whether intentional or unintentional) to keep those promises can have serious effects on their emotional development and mental well being.
Even when you break a promise you made to your spouse, like your marriage vows, children have an uncanny ability to make your failure their fault. Don’t believe me? Ask anyone who experienced their parent’s divorce as a child. Ask how the divorce made them feel and listen closely and carefully to their response. Almost without exception, they will say something like: “At the time, I felt like it was all my fault.” I’m not trying to lay a guilt trip on you about your past, I just want you to understand the importance of making and keeping promises. Most of all, I want you to understand the importance of God making and keeping His promises. His example of faithfulness in keeping His promises is the model every parent should strive to achieve in your relationship with your children and your spouse.
In today’s focal passage, Paul addresses the source and scope of God’s salvation promises to man and the extent of their fulfillment. That’s precisely what I want us to consider: the source of salvation, the scope of salvation and the fulfillment of God’s salvation promises in our lives and in our world.
First, the source of salvation as evidenced in Abraham’s life is faith in God and, specifically, God faithfully keeping His promises. Paul goes to great lengths to show the connection between Abraham and Christian faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Some of you might consider it a bit of a stretch to tie Abraham’s faith to New Testament faith in Jesus, but that’s precisely what Paul is doing. Paul sees no difference in Abraham’s faith, his own personal faith, the Roman church’s faith or even our faith in Christ. How can that be? Simply because it isn’t faith in something, like obedience to the law, but faith in someone, the One True God and it transcends and supersedes all cultural, ethnic and national boundaries and commitments.
That’s an important distinction, especially given the ethnic diversity of Paul’s audience, the Roman church, and our ever-shrinking global world. It is also one that we should celebrate and embrace as it directly addresses the ethnic diversity, racial tensions and cultural differences in our world. Paul wants the Roman church to recognize how the founding of our faith pre-existed and supersedes Judaism, the Mosaic Law and Jewish culture. Just like Paul sought to expand the Roman’s view of the church, we must expand our view of Christ’s church.
In many ways, we have so linked our view of Christianity to our culture that we struggle to understand or embrace a view of the church that doesn’t match our own. For example, we seem to think that the church only grows when it exists in a political environment of religious freedom, but that is far from the truth. Globally, the church of Christ is growing faster in nations and cultures where it is ridiculed, suppressed and even openly and severely persecuted. The church is growing rapidly in places like Iran and Syria, and is exploding with growth across Asia and Africa. Europe and North America are no longer the center for the global church. The majority of the world’s Christians now live in Asia and Africa. As this shift continues and grows, we must recognize and suppress our tendencies to make the church fit our western model and cultural mindset. In other words, we must resist our tendency to transplant our western churches, ideas, traditions and worship onto foreign soil.
In reality, the world is now coming to the west and bringing its diverse culture into the global melting pot that is America. As that happens, our culture is also shifting and changing with this influx of global cultural influences. This happens as our own people and congregations become more ethnically and culturally diverse, but it also happens as our ability to communicate and interact globally increases and exposes us to other cultures and ideas. This is where it often gets interesting and challenging for many American Christians. We want and even expect international Christians to adapt to our ways, but that reflects the very struggle that Paul is addressing with the Roman church. The Jewish Christians expected non-Jewish Christians to adapt their lifestyle to fit the Jewish demands of the law but Paul argues that “faith” preceded the Mosaic Law and even the Jewish rite of circumcision. So, the source of salvation, God’s grace through faith in the enduring and faithful Word of God – Jesus Christ, is culturally and ethnically agnostic.
Let me be very clear here, I’m not suggesting that the gospel message changes or is subject to relative truth. However, I am suggesting that the timeless message of the gospel and the Word of God is capable of speaking into, impacting and bringing transformation to every time, place, culture, ethnically diverse people, relational challenge and political circumstance. While the historicity and truth of the gospel and Jesus’ life and story are certainly tied to first century Judea and Jewish culture God has made them possible of addressing the lives and needs of every people group and person on the planet. That’s intentional, obviously. So, the source of salvation is God’s grace through faith. Always has been, always will be.
Next, the scope of salvation is the entire life, mind and destiny of all recipients of grace. God’s work of salvation is far reaching and, ultimately, results in the transformation of the complete individual and beyond. While Abraham certainly made his share of mistakes and, at times, failed to fully grasp the full extent of God’s promises, the promises of God extended far beyond just the life of Abraham and Sarah. God’s work of redemption was intricately woven into the very fabric of their lives but they had no concept of how much. All they really knew was that God had promised them an heir and, even though they made several missteps in the process, He fulfilled that promise and Abraham’s faith deepened. Did he see the far reaching impact of that promise? I doubt it. He was just walking by faith, one day at a time.
So, what’s my point? God is still expanding the horizon of His promise to Abraham. The depth and breadth of that promise has yet to be full realized. As I mentioned above, the growth of Christ’s body – the Church – may be so small and slow as to be almost stagnant in Europe and North America but it is expanding rapidly across Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The American church must begin to realize that the things we seem to think should bring growth or revitalize dying churches isn’t. Why? Because we think church growth is something you do, so we keep doing different things trying to find the right THING to bring about growth. However, church growth is something HE does and is never dependent on man’s schemes or abilities.
Simply put, churches don’t grow because they find the right program or have the latest resources, embrace the latest trends, chase after the latest social issue or have the best marketing budget and plan. In fact, God doesn’t necessarily call us to pursue growth – He calls us to pursue Him, above everything else. What we’ve been called to do is to faithfully scatter the seed of the gospel and the actual growth is left in God’s hands. Every farmer knows that he cannot make a seed grow, he can only plant, cultivate, fertilize, water and hope in the midst of prayer. You do your part – faithful obedience and trust, leave the rest to God. God is able to give life to the dead and call into existence things that do not exist.
Finally, I want to end by pointing out the scope of the salvation that God had promised through Abraham – descendants that numbered greater than the grains of sand or the stars in the heavens – the father of many nations. Did you catch that? Abraham’s faith would result in an ethnically diverse church that encompass every nation, tribe, people and tongue (see Rev. 5:9-10). We often fail to see the beauty of this promise and breadth of its reach. God was working through a middle-eastern nomadic herder and his wife to continue His work of redemption that would reach far beyond their tents, even past the borders of the neighboring lands. This promise would reach around the globe and into my home and yours. Abraham and Sarah were a piece in the grand puzzle of God’s plan – but so are you and I. That promise is intricately tied to our faith and the thread of God’s love that stretches back into eternity past continues to lengthen and broaden and bring others to faith and obedience.
When Abraham heard the promise of God, a son who would carry on the fulfillment of that promise to the next generation and beyond, he simply took God as His word and believed. Will you? Will you take God at His word and simply trust Him to do what He promises? That’s faith. It isn’t some mystical, deeply held secret. It is learning to live each day with the expectation that God will do what He has promised to do. It means that you take God at His word. When He says, “the meek shall inherit the earth, peacemakers will be called the sons of God and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled” those who believe do it. Do you believe?